Saffron – The forgotten superfood.

This week I shall introduce you to the incredible history of Crocus sativus, or saffron. Native to parts of Asia – the golden stamen of this crocus were originally cultivated for use by the Ancient Greeks. They utilised it in everything, from masking smells and medical treatments to dyeing clothes for the wealthy. Regularly used in fertility rituals it is also mentioned in many of the death/rebirth stories of Greek mythology.

During the many centuries of cooperation between Greece and Rome, this bewitching spice conquered Roman culture and is believed to have been scattered through the streets as Nero entered Rome in 54AD. They also prized it as a culinary ingredient and brought it with them during their time in Britain until their retreat in the 5th century.

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We didn’t see saffron in Britain again until the 14th century when it became a popular crop around Western Europe, with the majority of English saffron coming from Saffron Walden, East Anglia. During the Black Death epidemic in the mid 1300’s it was thought that saffron offered a miracle cure and high demand required huge imports of Non – European supplies too. So great was the craze for saffron and it’s health giving qualities that thieves sailing Mediterranean seas are believed to have ignored ships transporting gold for those taking saffron to Venice and Genoa. The saffron mania culminated in a fourteen week war between Basel and Austria when a 800lb shipment was taken hostage by a group of nobles. The hoard was eventually returned. At the same time in England, punishment for selling adulterated saffron was incarceration – before execution by immolation.


Cultivation of the crop continued in South East England until the late 1700’s when an influx of modern foodstuffs such as vanilla and chocolate drew the attention of middle and upper class consumers. In recent years there has been a resurge in English growing and native saffron can be purchased from Norfolk Saffron, along with others.

I finish this blog with a recipe inspired by Apicius, infamous Roman chef and inventor of many incredible dishes. He describes a meal of chickpeas, olive oil, cumin and coriander. This can be found adapted for the modern cook by the fantastically named blog Roman in the Gloamin’. But as we are still in the throws of winter I developed this gentle soup to nurture the most frazzled of souls and stomachs.


  1. big pinch of saffron threads
  2. 2 large leeks, finely chopped and cleaned
  3. 1tsp ground cumin
  4. 1tsp ground coriander
  5. half tsp ground black pepper
  6. vegetable stock cube
  7. 1 litre of water
  8. 180g red lentils
  9. 400g tin of chickpeas


  • Take as large a pinch of saffron as you can bear and drop into a small dish. Pour on 2-3 tablespoonfuls of warm water and set aside.
  • In a large pan – fry the sliced leeks in two tablespoons of olive oil until soft and translucent. Tip in the ground spices and stir through for a minute or so.
  • Add the stock cube, water and red lentils. Stir again. Bring the contents to boil and leave to simmer – covered – for around ten minutes.


  • Return to the saffron. The water should now have a deep red/golden colour. Tip the liquid, stamens and all, into the pan. Toss in the chickpeas and mix well. Replace the lid and simmer for another fifteen minutes or until the contents are cooked through. Add extra water if required. Season with salt and extra pepper as required.
  • Once cooked remove three ladles of the soup into a separate container and blend. Pour back into the pan and combine to create a silky soup with a little texture. Drizzle with olive oil to serve.


Viking Pie and Collaboration

The joy of passion is being able to share it with others. A recent collaboration with Darren Wiseman and his team at The York Pie Company has finally reached its conclusion. The Viking Pie lives!


When I heard that Darren wanted to add a Viking Pie to his repertoire  it seemed a perfect opportunity for The History Girls to share their knowledge. The chance to see a product reproduced in a commercial context was too good to miss. Evidence from archaeological finds here in York, an understanding of the meat, foraged goods and farming methods utilised by Vikings here in York in the 9th/10th centuries all influenced the recipe developed for this exciting project.The pie can be purchased from The York Pie Company and will have its first outing with the public at our upcoming tasting event, Taste Yorvik. (Tickets still available.)


As pastry was yet to be invented in Viking era York, it is true to say that this is a pie influenced by 10th century flavours as opposed to an actual Viking pie. The first step in developing a filling must surely be the choice of meat and we felt that options such as venison and wild boar were rather cliché. The most commonly farmed animal was the pig – as through much of history – followed by sheep which were valued for their wool. Once an animal outlived its usefulness, or became difficult to feed due to times of hardship, then it would be slaughtered.


There was the decision of flavourings. Archaeological evidence shows that Vikings in York ate both coriander and dill, perfect companions to mutton. This provided us with sound building blocks to a recipe. To supplement the mutton we investigated vegetable sources. The Vikings are thought to have consumed wild leeks picked on foraging trips, and were known to grow peas and broad beans. As both peas and leeks are an excellent match to dill they were added to list. To complete the aim for authenticity, and round off the flavour profile, we also included a combination of rye and barley flour in the pastry mix – common grains for the period.

So if you are in York and fancy a Viking influenced pie, keep an eye out for The York Pie Company. Or if you are a business and wish to collaborate with The History Girls on a similar project do give us a shout, we can help you put a little bit of history on your plate.

Collop Monday


Today – the day preceding Shrove Tuesday – is traditionally Collop Monday. It derives from an old Norse word Kollop meaning meat stew. This came to mean slices of meat and finally and more specifically, slices of bacon and eggs. Collop Monday is the day allocated to eating up any meat before the fasting of Lent begins. Any fat from the meat should then be utilised when frying pancakes the following day.

Spelt and Honey Rock Cakes

I have been preoccupied with ancient grains since writing our post on Ethiopian grain Teff last November. Our healthy eating series in the new year included Noah’s Pudding and today we revisit that recipe’s main ingredient, spelt.


A member of the farro family and descendent of ancient wheat Emmer, Spelt has formed a staple part of the human diet since the Bronze Age when it spread through central Europe. In the Iron Age spelt became the main wheat species in southern Germany and Switzerland, finally landing in Southern Britain around 500 BC. It continued to be popular until 1786 when Scottish engineer Andrew Meikle invented the threshing machine. Sadly the tougher husk of the spelt could not be removed by this new work saving device and it gradually fell out of favour.

200 years on and spelt was adopted by the organic food movement as it requires fewer fertilizers, although lower yield and a lengthier preparation process make it a pricier alternative for consumers. With a lower G.I. rating, higher levels of phenolic compounds and decent amounts of sulphur, potassium, niacin, B6 and beta-carotene – it is now being hailed as the latest ‘superfood’ and takes centre stage in a recent trend for heritage ingredients.

Spelt has a flavour reminiscent of peanut butter and a wonderfully crumbly texture. Classically matched with honey it sits perfectly alongside oranges, walnuts, hazelnuts and the darkest of dark chocolate. I have combined it with a standard white flour to lend a lighter quality. This recipe makes around 12 rock cakes ideal for an afternoon tea break.



  • 220g white self raising flour
  • 110g wholemeal spelt flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 150g butter
  • 120g chopped dates
  • 1 orange
  • 3 tbsp honey
  • 1 egg
  • 3-4 tbsp milk


  1. Preheat oven to 200C. Grease/line a baking tray.
  2. Combine the two flours and baking powder. Rub in the butter to fine breadcrumb texture. Stir in dates and the zest of your orange.
  3. In a large jug whisk 1tbsp of juice from the orange with the honey, egg and 3 tbsp of milk. Add to the dry ingredients and mix to a stiff dough. Use a little more milk if necessary.
  4. Pull of small, golf ball size pieces and space out on the tray. Bake for 20 – 25 minutes until golden brown and cooked through. Will keep for up to a week in a tin.


Ginger and A Grateful Pudding

May I with an apology. It has been a while since my last post and I promise to resume the momentum once again. Here in York we have been experiencing a harsh drop in temperatures, though thankfully not much snow. Such weather always throws me in to the kitchen in search of satisfying puddings, dried fruit and warm spices. So, in a break from the Healthy Eating series throughout January, I am going to share with you my favourite spice and a wonderfully named baked pudding.

Ginger is initially believed to have been imported for use in Ancient Rome from India ( via its native China) until the fall of the Roman empire in the 5th century. Arab traders then took control of the spice routes from the East and planted the rhizome in Africa and Zanzibar, trading with Greeks and Romans and introducing the spice to Europe along the way. Marco Polo  also obtained ginger on his travels around Central Asia and China, and so began our worldwide love affair with Zingiber officinale.

First utilised as a medicinal plant, Ginger can be found in the anglo saxon manuscript Balds Leechbook alongside silk, frankincense, blood letting and buck’s liver as possible treatments for poor health. In the later medieval period, as diet and health is inexorably linked to the four humors, the spicy heat of ginger gave it a dangerous quality. It has often been included in aphrodisiac consumables such as gingerbread, or the fabulous sounding cordial Rosa Solis. In addition to cinnamon, ginger, clove and grains of paradise, this Italian cordial water held a suspension of coral, ground pearl and tiny flecks of pure gold. A more humble, delicious recipe for rhubarb and ginger cordial can be found in the Jamie Oliver Magazine. As regular readers know, my own passion for food history was sparked by medieval recipes for gingerbread, and in Gingerbread spice and all things nice I provide you with a spice mix for adding medieval flavour to any favourite baking recipe. Ginger also held great value great value as a digestif, to calm the system after eating and ‘close off’ the stomach a belief still in evidence today.

The recipe I have chosen this week makes very good use of ground ginger and is perfect for the chilly damp days of February. It is taken from the Victorian cookbook Everybody’s Pudding Book (1862) by Georgiana Hill. It was, I confess, the name which first drew me in to this dish, and the inclusion of ginger meant that I was always bound to have a go. The end result is reminiscent of a traditional suet dessert but lighter in texture and with the warmth of ground ginger running through.


A Grateful Pudding

Take half a pound each of breadcrumbs and dry flour, then beat the yolks of four eggs and the whites of two; mix them with half a pint of new milk; stir in the bread and flour; add half a pound of stoned raisins, half a pound of washed currants, a quarter of a pound of sugar, and a large spoonful of ground ginger. Mix thoroughly together and either bake it for three-quarters of an hour, or boil it for an hour and a half.

Please note: I whisked the eggs till light and frothy and reduced the dried fruit slightly. I then spooned the mixture into a baking tin and baked, sat in a bain-marie, for 45 minutes at 175C until lightly browned and cooked through.

A very British stoup

One of the things I love about winter is the endless bowls of warming soup. Solid, honest food that wraps you in a fleece blanket and puts the fire on as you eat. Dried pulses, root veg and aliums seem to be grown for this form of cookery and you can almost feel it doing you good whilst you slurp out of a big heavy mug.


The next choice for the Healthy Eating from History series is not so much a recipe as a flavour profile from a particular time and place. The 9th century to be exact, the Anglo Saxon / Viking era and the place is Yorvik. Archaeological finds have discovered small amounts of evidence regarding our diet and there is much documentation as to farming methods, in addition to knowledge regarding edible native plants.

Beans and peas have formed an important part of our diets for centuries, and it is believed to be the broad bean which was most commonly seen in Anglo Saxon England. Grown as a field crop they would be dried on the plant and stored throughout the year. Out of necessity, meals were meat free and beans provided an excellent source of protein in addition to complex carbohydrates. There is something ancient and nutritious about eating dried beans and other pulses and I am inevitably drawn to throwing them in my stoup. Mine were recently picked up from a Newcastle deli and are British grown by Hodmedods in the south.


The second main ingredient for today is leeks. Anglo Saxons are thought to have eaten a lot of wild aliums, the family including leeks, garlic and chive. They would also have access to carrots and parsnips, both would be thin, woody and white in colour as orange carrots had not reached the shores of England. My recent vegetable bag from Goodness contained a combination of white and yellow carrots so I chop them up and toss them in too.

Last but not least I look to archaeological evidence from the dig sites in York’s Coppergate area for inspiration with flavourings. Samples of plant finds confirm the use of both coriander and dill in seed and probably leaf form. As dill is excellent with leeks and carrots I take this gently aniseed route. I also cheat with a vegetable stock cube, bay leaf and seasoning.

NB: In the photographs below you will have noticed a lamb bone peeking out of the top of the stoup. It was left over from a roast the day before and any viking cook would never let such a flavourful addition go to waste so neither did I. It was an added bonus and obviously should not stop you from having a go in the absence of a juicy bone!


250g dried broad beans or split peas
4 medium leeks
2 tsp dill seeds
2 carrots
Vegetable stock cube
2 small bay leaves
Optional: random left over bone



Place the beans in a large pot and cover with plenty of water. Soak overnight.

The next day wash and slice the leeks. Fry gently in a large pan. Do not brown.

Whilst the leeks are cooking, chop the carrots and add to the pan along with the dill seed.

Cover the contents of the pan with one litre of water and stir in the vegetable stock cube and bay leaves. Bring to the boil then simmer for about an hour.

Towards the end of cooking time use a spoon to press and break up the broad beans. This releases the starch and thickens the stoup as you stir. Serve in whatever vessel you prefer.


Healthy Eating from History – Erbolate

Welcome to the second instalment of the Healthy Histories series. We kicked off 2015 with the toothsome pudding from Turkey called Asure. Today I share with you a dish of baked egg and herbs. A simple supper made for Richard II, Erbolate appeared in one of the earliest cookery books in England, A Forme of Cury from 1390.

Duck, Old Blue Cotswold and modern speckled brown chicken egg.

Duck, Old Blue Cotswold and modern speckled brown chicken egg.

From peahen to the much prized turtle, mankind has eaten eggs throughout culinary history. Extraordinary Roman chef Apicius, thriving in 25Bc, is thought to have invented many familiar egg recipes. He is the first to document a sweet baked egg custard. By the Middle ages eggs accompanied fish and almond milk as suitable alternatives to meat during fasting.

Many herbs from this period are no longer easily available and when they are found it is often in the context of herbal therapies. Indeed, many of the plants noted in this ‘receipt’ were likely included for their medicinal qualities.

Take and grind parsel, mynthe, sauery, sauge, tansey, veruain, clarey, rewe, ditaiyn, fenel and southernewood and grinde hem fyne.

Rue, Dittany and Southernwood are all extremely bitter tasting leaves which are toxic and should be used with extreme care. They were all believed to be beneficial to the digestive system as many bitter herbs were. In actual fact, Southernwood is the Mediterranean relative of Wormwood, infamous ingredient of absinthe and containing neuro-toxins. Tansy is another which should be used sparingly but will impart a unique aromatic flavour not dissimilar to nutmeg or clove. Tansy can be found growing wild across England if you are a confident forager.


Tansy – photographed on a guided foraging trip last year.

Clary, otherwise known as Clary Sage, was utilised by the Romans to make an eyewash and is believed to be good for easing muscle spasms. This is still in modern culinary and herbal use as is Vervain. Better known as Verbena, Vervain is thought to be one of the 38 plants used to make the tincture for Bach flower remedy.

The challenge when recreating Erbolate is matching the flavour profile with ingredients which are both flavoursome and easy to source. We are not as accustomed to bitter leaves here in Britain, though other parts of Europe still value them as part of a wide ranging diet. Frisee and dandelion leaves were excellent possibilities, along with the chicory and rocket I eventually decided upon. Parsley, Mint and Sage were obvious enough and I chose to add a little thyme to echo the qualities of the Dittany and Savoury. Finely, a little nutmeg grated sparingly over the top will do in the absence of Tansy.



or Baked Herb Omelette


  • 1 handful of rocket leaves
  • 1 chicory head
  • small amount of each fresh – thyme, parsley, mint, sage, fennel or tarrogan
  • 3 duck eggs
  • salt and nutmeg for seasoning


Serves two with salad

  • Preheat the oven to 175C.
  • Take a small baking dish and grease lightly with butter.
  • Gently tear the rocket leaves up and place them in the bottom. Break 2-3 blades from the bulb of chicory and lay them on top as seen in the picture below.


  • Finely chop the herbs and scatter on top of the chicory. Start with around about a loose teaspoon of each once finally chopped. You can then adjust according to personal taste if you wish.


  • Whisk the eggs and pour them over the herbs. Press everything down so that the chicory is coated and is less likely to catch in the oven. Chicken eggs could also be used, but I went with the more robust nature of duck eggs to stand up to the strong flavour of the other ingredients. Grate a little nutmeg over the top before placing in the oven. Bake for 20 – 25 minutes depending on how you like your eggs and the depth of your dish. Remove and serve. Leftovers can be eaten at room temperature the next day.